Background: Canadian provincial policies, like Ontario's School Food and Beverage Policy (P/PM 150), increasingly mandate standards for food and beverages offered for sale at school. Given concerns regarding students leaving school to purchase less healthy foods, we examined student behaviours and competitive food retail around schools in a large urban region of Southern Ontario.
Methods: Using a geographic information system (GIS), we enumerated food outlets (convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, full-service restaurants) within 500, 1000 and 1500 m of all 389 regional schools spanning years of policy implementation. Consenting grade 6-10 students within 31 randomly selected schools completed a web-based 24-h diet recall (WEB-Q) and questionnaire.
Results: Food outlet numbers increased over time (p < 0.01); post-policy, within 1000 m, they averaged 27.31 outlets, with a maximum of 65 fast-food restaurants around one school. Of WEB-Q respondents (n = 2075, mean age = 13.4 ± 1.6 years), those who ate lunch at a restaurant/take-out (n = 84, 4%) consumed significantly more energy (978 vs. 760 kcal), sodium (1556 vs. 1173 mg), and sugar (44.3 vs. 40.1 g). Of elementary and secondary school respondents, 22.1% and 52.4% reported ever eating at fast food outlets during school days.
Conclusions: Students have easy access to food retail in school neighbourhoods. The higher energy, sodium and sugar of these options present a health risk.
Keywords: GIS; child and adolescent; energy; food; overweight and obesity; retail density; school policy; sodium; sugar; urban environment.